The Braves are going to field the deepest lineup in the league this year. That is not hyperbole. It is likely they will have six starters hit 20 home runs. If Brian McCann comes back healthy, they will have seven. And if Juan Francisco seizes the third base job and maintains the power he flashed last season, the Braves could potentially get 20 homers from every single starting position player without anyone significantly outperforming their career numbers. And that’s not the only reason to expect big things from this Braves lineup.
When the Braves acquired Justin Upton this offseason for Martin Prado and Randall Delgado, they got a player who was just a year removed from a fourth-place finish in MVP voting. Yet Upton’s star lost some of his shine after a subpar (for him) 2012 season. Arizona decided that Upton did not fit with their “gritty” philosophy and that an MVP-caliber player was not worth the trouble.
The Braves were smarter than that. Almost all of Upton’s struggles can be attributed to an injured thumb he chose to play through. His walk rate, strikeout rate and BABIP all were basically in line with his career numbers. The only number to plummet severely? His ISO, the difference between his slugging percentage and batting average, which represents a player’s power. Upton’s dropped from .240 in his stellar 2011 to just .150 last year, lower than Coco Crisp and Zack Cozart.
It’s likely that this stark drop in power was due to the thumb injury. Upton’s BABIP shows he was still putting the ball in play at a rate consistent with his career numbers, but those balls simply didn’t have the same pop Upton was used to. This theory is backed up by his HR/FB percentage, a number that tracks how often a player’s fly balls leave the yard. Upton’s dropped from 14.8 percent in 2011 to just 11 percent last year. That number is also well below his career average of 13.8 percent as well.
Finally, although Upton was putting the ball in play at the same rate, he was not getting the same results on those balls. Upton’s ground ball rate and fly ball rate essentially flipped, which is not a good thing. In 2011, Upton grounded out 36.9 percent of the time and flew out 44.8 percent of the time. For a player with Upton’s power, this is a good thing; the more he puts the ball in the air, the more likely it is to leave the park. But last season, those numbers became inverted: he grounded out 43.8 percent of the time and flew out just 35.6 percent of the time. Not only could he not get his fly balls to leave the yard, he couldn’t even get the ball in the air as much.
There are reasons to believe that Justin Upton will return to his 2011 MVP-caliber form. Nearly all of his regressions on offense can be traced to that injured thumb, which is reportedly healed. The results were already apparent, as Upton raked in Spring Training, to the tune of a .586 slugging percentage and six homers (all spring training stats to be taken with a whole handful of salt). If he returns to form, the Braves could have a legitimate MVP candidate in the middle of the majors’ deepest lineup, which should worry the rest of the National League.